Why you should care
Sandra Torres, a controversial moderate, is running a race with real ramifications for America’s immigration debate.
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She’s a former first lady known for her social programs for women and children, once married to a scandal-ridden president. She is left-leaning but moderate, promising to fight against elites yet also accused of being part of the clubby establishment. She has run twice before to become the first female president … of Guatemala, that is.
As American eyes look to Central America, it’s hard not to see parallels between the candidacies of Sandra Torres and Hillary Clinton in an election with huge ramifications for the U.S. immigration debate. Both faced glass ceilings and right-leaning foes, seeking to escape the shadows of their husbands and controversies of their own making. Like Clinton, the 64-year-old Torres is beloved by core supporters: She led a field of 19 candidates with 25 percent of Sunday’s vote, assuring her place in a winner-take-all runoff in August. Yet she inspires equally strong negativity as well. An April poll found that half of the voters vowed never to vote for her: Men (particularly the middle class and wealthy) resisted her the most.
Guatemalan polls notoriously favor wealthier urban centers, while Torres gets most of her support from poor, rural districts. Still, the comparison becomes even more unavoidable when considering her run-off opponent, Alejandro Giammattei, a hard-line former Guatemalan prison director who presided over two of the country’s worst prison massacres. Giammattei has promised to bring back the death penalty to defeat violent gangs and curb migration — a Rodrigo Duterte–like policy that might sound good to tough-on-crime Trump.
A lot of the people in the countryside see [Torres] as a social provider.
Hector Silva, researcher for Inside Crime
The limelight is especially bright on Guatemala, given that it is now the top country of origin for migrants and asylum seekers detained at the southern border of the U.S. — the same low-income indigenous families who make up much of Torres’ support. The Guatemalan government drew criticism in early June for inviting U.S. agents and even military units to its regions bordering Mexico (the decision was “deplorable,” Jordán Rodas, the country’s human-rights ombudsman, told Al Jazeera). The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said its goals were to enhance security and help decrease the causes of migration, following a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to combat the illegal smuggling of people and goods.
Would the region see a major shift under a President Torres? It’s doubtful. The leader of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party, she tends to offer moderation, not a sea change. She and Giammattei both “represent the status quo,” says Hector Silva, a researcher for Inside Crime, based in Guatemala. That is a stark contrast to Thelma Aldana, a third candidate who was known for her anti-corruption credentials as the former Supreme Court president and attorney general of Guatemala. Aldana was forced to exit the race early, despite leading some polls, after being accused of what U.S. and local civil groups have called “trumped-up” corruption charges. “The movement [Aldana] represented was one for the reformists,” Silva says.
In 2011, Torres divorced her husband, Álvaro Colom — who spent nearly six months in jail last year while facing graft charges from his time as president — tearfully saying that she was doing so to “marry the people” instead. The divorce was necessary to skirt a Guatemalan law prohibiting family members of presidents from running for the office. Her divorce, she said, was “for the people, for my country, for the elderly, the children, the disabled, the abandoned, the orphans, for all those in need in Guatemala.” For those who support Torres, it’s that image they hold on to. “A lot of the people in the countryside see her as a social provider,” Silva says.
However, the Guatemalan Supreme Court and Election Tribunal ruled the divorce “legal fraud” and disqualified her from the 2011 race. She threw her hat in the ring again in 2015, taking second place in the run-off to conservative candidate Jimmy Morales, a former Black-face comedian who ran on an anti-corruption platform but has undermined much of the country’s investigative institutions after being accused of campaign finance fraud by the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, Torres and the rest of the candidates have taken up the anti-corruption mantra once more, as three of the last four presidents have been arrested for corruption after their terms. “I am going to sweep the government of all the corruption that is embedded today,” she said in May, according to the newspaper Prensa Libre.
But critics note that her corruption plan hasn’t gone further than an “austerity plan” to cut pork, thus reducing the chances of graft. While serving in elected office, Guatemalan lawmakers are shielded from prosecution, an issue that human-rights organizers say leads to widespread corruption — yet Torres has not promised to revoke such immunities. Among her plans to curb crime are building more prisons in rural areas and temporarily militarizing city sectors with high crime rates.
Giammattei would likely go further, Silva says, giving “a lot of power to the police and military.” Still, experts say Torres’ policies are more punitive than substantive and aren’t likely to address the root causes of poverty and bloodshed in the country. “There is not much of a spectrum left to right. It’s from center to extreme right. It goes from heavy-handed to super-heavy-handed,” says Eric Olson, a Wilson Center global fellow specializing in Central America and Mexico. (He also disagrees with the Clinton comparison: “Americans always try to find themselves in somebody else’s story,” Olsen says, but “the political reality is completely different.”)
While Torres leads the first vote, she is expected to struggle in the run-off, particularly if Giammattei can coalesce the country’s centrist and far-right forces. The business community is hesitant to back her. And while the U.S. hasn’t pressed its thumb on the scale in Guatemala the way it did in Venezuela, the American government’s anti-immigrant push hovers over the election. Will Torres break through the glass ceiling in Guatemala? Even if she does, the shattered glass left behind will be one hell of a clean-up project.